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Happy 2014 all.

I’m among the millions trying to stay warm inside the massive ice ball of air hurled into North America by the “polar vortex.” It’s been at or below zero with the wind chill all day and waiting for my younger son at the bus stop was pretty darn unpleasant. Mind you, I know I’ve got it easy compared to many. All of my friends and former coworkers back in Chiberia (Chicago) for a start. Or I could be stuck in an airport or stranded on the opposite side of the country from home. Or not have a home at all and be in a desperate struggle to stay alive another day in this deadly cold. So…a dollop of perspective in my cocoa.

Having come out of my usual holiday season writing slumber I am back at work on the second draft of my novel.

It’s a learning experience for sure. Gene Wolfe says, “You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.” So I’m learning how to write this one.

The first thing I did was read the first draft through all the way. Tried not to stop for long. Tried to keep my note making and paragraph slashing to a minimum. Tried to stay away from sharp objects.

When I reached the end, I was relieved to have learned that there is, indeed, a story in there worth telling. It’s just not ready to be read by anyone but me. There are places where it goes wildly off course. In other places the story bogs down. Characters undergo personality shifts. Back story pieces and other details are in the wrong place and wind up told rather than shown. Etc. Normal first draft stuff. Except for one thing: the sheer scale.

I was a bit unprepared to discover how many people and moving parts there are in the manuscript. Keeping it all in my head so that I can focus in on a given character’s trajectory and behavior across the whole tale has proven difficult. Also, given the size, I couldn’t quite see the beats of the narrative as reliably as I’d like in my minds eye. I’ve been experimenting with ways to help myself.

I labeled an index card for each significant character in the story and tacked them up on my cork board. It looks like this:

Cards on Corkboard

I have them arranged by what section of the book they are primarily featured in or alongside characters that have the most interaction with them. I’ve been making shorthand notes about each character on the cards. Reminders about tendencies or traits.

The other tool I’m creating is something like an outline except there are no bullets. It’s more a super condensed version of the novel. Goes something like this:

Stave One – Marley’s Ghost

Summary: Christmas Eve. We meet Ebenezer Scrooge, learn about his work and life and meet some of the people around him. He goes home alone and is visited by the ghost of his dead partner who warns him he must change his life and that he will be visited by three ghosts.

P7 Narrator goes on at some length that Marley is dead and that Scrooge is a bitter, miserly recluse.

P10 Scrooge’s nephew arrives, tries, and fails to persuade Scrooge to come to Christmas dinner.

P16 Two men from a charitable organization appeal to Scrooge for a donation and are rebuffed. “surplus population.”

Etc. I’ve done this with half the manuscript so far and will complete it tomorrow. I’m finding it a useful exercise. Just the page numbers give me a sense of when the writing gets suspiciously long or suspiciously brief. I can see the major events and where they lie in relationship to one another. I can note major themes or important quotes that influence later events (or could, or should).

I’m getting my arms around the story and the characters. Or, perhaps, I’m making a map. Something to help me navigate. Because I’ve never been in these waters before.

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One of the standard bits of advice for writers (Not to be confused with rules.) is to set a piece of work aside for awhile after completing the first draft. Do something else. Gain some distance and the perspective that comes with it.

Having completed the first draft of my first novel earlier this year, I set off and wrote other things. I wrote a children’s story that was published in April. I wrote a short poem that was published on a postcard in June. I wrote a story that was just published this past weekend. I also wrote a fistful of other stories, poems, and oddities that are either out knocking on doors trying to find someone to let them in or sitting in the waiting room on my computer for me to maybe, possibly, one day go back to.

They’re going to be waiting a while. Yesterday I sent the first draft of my novel off to be printed. When I arrived to pick it up I was handed this:

Boxed Novel

My sons were discouraged to learn it was not a box full of donuts. Instead, it contained a 112,000 word, 542 page manuscript that looks like this when released from its box:

Out of the Box Novel

Now I get to read it. Hopefully, I’ll discover it contains an actual story with a beginning, a middle, and an end and that it is populated with interesting characters, some of whom change along the way. Because it’s the first draft and because it’s my first time writing a novel and because there were gaps in my work on it, I know in advance there will be problems. Some of them substantial. There will be sentences, paragraphs, pages, heck – possibly whole sections where I wonder who on earth gave some poor monkey a typewriter and told him he was an author. Then I’ll remember I’m the monkey and will go and get a banana.

I will also remember this bit of writer wisdom:

Rewriting the Novel

Ah! Right. I’ve already done the part I avoided for years and years. I took on a big story and saw it through to the end. Now I get to do something I have much, much more experience with – revise. Tinker. Rearrange. Rewrite if necessary. Add on.

Unless the thing really is an unrecoverable, inoperable mess. Then I get to decide whether I still like the story and just told it badly and should try again OR whether it was a nice learning experience and I’d really rather tell some other story.

Time to find out.

 

 

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Fantastic! What books would you use to build your staircase?

Childrens Lit Staircase

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I’ve been a lousy blogger lately. So, tonight, an experiment. I’m firing up my upgraded Pandora One account and I will type about one subject per song until either I’m done or the song ends. Here goes….

  • (“No Cars Go”, Arcade Fire) The winter of 2012/2013 hasn’t been a good one, health wise. Not in the USA and not in my house. I think one or more of us has been sick with something since just before Christmas. At the moment, my wife is most of the way back from a head cold while  I’m in the middle of one. My older son is stuffy. My younger one seems alright at the moment. I wonder how much to blame the move to a new town (new population = different assortment of bugs?). But I also think the dry air in our new home might be part of the problem. In our old house, we had a central humidifier hooked up to the forced air heating system. Here we’re on baseboard radiators and it gets pretty arid. I notice it especially when I first get up in the morning. 
  • (“Steady, As She Goes”, The Raconteurs) I completed the first draft of my first novel in mid-January and immediately started working on a batch of new stories. Having spent something like 27 months on the novel (give or take) my storehouse of ideas is absolutely stuffed. I had been stockpiling them in my journals. Now I’m writing the ones that seem like they have real potential…as much as one can ever tell before diving in and trying to actually write them. So far I’ve written a short story, two flash fiction stories, and two microfiction pieces. All have been submitted. Beginning a new short story now.
  • (“You Only Live Once”, The Strokes) What’s the plan for the novel? Well, I’m firmly committed to letting the first draft sit and cool for a few months. Probably until late spring. No later than early summer. I have other stories I want to write. I also need to clear my head. When I return, I’ll read through it and see what’s there. Hopefully, the story I thought I was writing is buried in there, but visible enough to shape into a second draft. If not? Well, I’ll cross that bridge if I don’t decide to jump off of it. But let’s assume there will be a second draft. I’ll write it and show it to some folks and then we’ll see. In the end, the intent remains to submit it to publishers.
  • (“Infinity”, The Xx) If you don’t live in New England, you might have heard we had some snow. If you live here, well, you have your own update to publish. Here in my town we received about 24″ of snow last Friday and Saturday, courtesy of Winter Storm Nemo. Not very far at all up the shore they received much more. Over 30″ and a bit inland Hamden won the contest with 40″. Hard to imagine that much from one storm. We had a great time playing in the snow here. The boys created an enormous network of caves, canyons, stairways, and paths in the 8′ tall pile that the plows left bordering the church parking lot out back. We did some sledding at the local hill. It’s small, but the kids had fun. I prefer much more epic runs than are possible here. We did very little in the way of snow sculptures. Some day I’d like to fill the huge lawn out front with snow people, but it will have to wait until some other storm. Especially since what we received last weekend is melting very fast. It has been over 40-degrees every day this week. Beautiful, pleasant days. More spring than winter.
  • (“Neighborhood #2 [Laika]”, Arcade Fire) Our house is getting more and more musical. My older son plays double bass in the school orchestra and now in the chamber music group as well. My younger son has been taking piano lessons for several weeks now using the piano that came with the parsonage. Probably out of envy as much as anything, I’ve started wanting to play music again. I’ve had two previous failed attempts to become a musician. I played the cello for one year in grade school. I played guitar for several years. In both cases I just did not love practicing enough to stick with it. But now I  keep thinking maybe it’s time to go find a used guitar and start again. Or maybe take up percussion. We’d have the start of a band if I take up percussion….  Meanwhile, I actually tuned the baritone ukulele we’ve owned for something like seven years. Maybe I’ll start there.
  • (“Let’s Go”, Danna/Devotchka) I finally had several pieces of art framed that have been hanging around the house for months or years. One is the fantastic Steven Gilberts print I bought at Anthocon in November. Another is an eerie and strange block print of a skull with mirror eyes and a few other touches by Shoshanna Utchenik, who I had the pleasure of working with at Redmoon Theater in Chicago for several years. The last is a glorious print of Neil Gaiman‘s “The Day the Saucers Came”, illustrated by Jouni Koponen that I purchased from NeverWear. Big visual upgrade for my office.
  • (“Fire It Up”, Modest Mouse) Spring means lots of things but high on the list in my house is baseball. My older son fell in love with baseball when he was 2 and never looked back. He plays other sports and does lots of other things, but baseball is pretty central to his sense of self so far. Right after the Super Bowl he started asking if we could start playing catch and doing drills. He’s looking ahead to the Little League season and wants his spring training, you see. I begged off for a couple of weeks because, you know, it’s February and it was still pretty cold. Then we had a blizzard. But now the weather has turned mild and so I took my glove down off the shelf for the first time since the World Series ended and out we went. Love the smell of the glove. Love the sound of the ball hitting it. Love the feel of the baseball in my hand and the way it comes off my fingers. Now we just need the rest of the snow to melt so we can practice on grass instead of asphalt.
  • (“We’re Going To Be Friends”, The White Stripes) Watching lots and lots of Doctor Who over the past several months. I’d never seen the show before four months ago. Alison grew up watching it. I was watching Star Trek. I knew about the show, but was never intrigued enough to track it down. I’m enjoying getting to know it now. We started with the renewed show that begins with the 9th Doctor. We’re finishing Series Four now, which is by far my favorite season so far. We’re also about to say goodbye to David Tennant, who plays the 10th Doctor and I’m not happy about it. Everyone, I’m told, has their Doctor. Tennant is mine. The next guy has a tough act to follow.
  • (“Stay Crunchy”, Ronald Jenkees) I’ll probably do another post about films I’m looking forward to, but Star Trek Into Darkness is one of them. I like what J.J. Abrams has done…which is part of why I’m a little anxious about him being named the director of the new Star Wars film. I don’t trust Star Wars films anymore after the last three. Nor does the trickle of rumors about the new film make me feel any better. Trotting out Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is not what I’d like to see. I don’t trust any of those characters and actors to come off as well as Leonard Nimoy’s Spock does in Star Trek.

And I’m done as “There There” by Radiohead pounds its way onstage. G’night. I promise not to be gone so long this time.

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A Quiet Accomplishment

Stack of Printed PaperI haven’t posted in quite a while. Been busy. One of the things I’ve been busy doing is a flurry of work on my first novel…and I have news.

I finished the first draft of my first novel at 12:30am this morning. It weighed in at 111,514 words on 542 standard manuscript formatted pages. I finished it long after everyone had gone to bed, in my office in the otherwise dark and quiet house.

That feels appropriate. Writing is, most of the time, a solitary art. I’d had visions of finishing the draft over the holidays, of being able to
celebrate with family and friends. Raise a glass or two. It didn’t work out that way. And that feels appropriate, too. The whole thing took longer than I had hoped. It wandered and bogged down and almost died once or twice and then ended in a rush of energy and enthusiasm. 16,000 words since I came home from the holidays which, for me, is well above average for less than three weeks.

I have to say it was both an exciting and bizarre moment to type the last line. Having put so much time and effort and emotion into getting this story down in words, I felt joyful, satisfied…and a bit disoriented.

It’s done?

Yes.

You mean…I don’t have to work on this tomorrow?

Yes. That is, in fact, what ‘done’ means.

…Really?

Yes. You are hereby dismissed from working on this.

Forever?

Of course not, you lummox, you have to revise it.

Can’t I do that now?

Absolutely not.

But there are things I know I should change.

Not now. Go away. Write other things. And….

And?

For God’s sake, clean your house and get a haircut, man.

Those are completely fair and accurate observations for my inner boss to make. I committed to finishing the novel by the middle of this month. To do it, I let go of other things. My volunteer work grew spotty. My attention to household chores slid. This week I even ditched exercise and forgot to shave for a few days.

“You look like you’re finishing a novel,” my loving wife observed, surveying my wild and disheveled appearance.

It’s all worth it. Even if the book is only read by a few people. I learned and grew a lot on this project and, with the revision cycles still to come, this first novel has more lessons to teach.

The best part? I get to start something new tomorrow.

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A Christmas Carol and Other Christmas BooksSo begins A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, which was published on this date in 1843. It is one of my all time favorites. A book I return to each December, reading a chapter a night for five nights. Tonight I’ll read Stave One – Marley’s Ghost.

One of the many reasons I love this story is that it mixes dark and light so well, with laughter and love winning out in the end. We need tales like this in our lives, particularly here in Connecticut in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown. It’s very easy to feel helpless and scared. It’s very easy to get cynical about our capacity to change.

But people do change. Cultures and societies do change. Laughter and love can win in the end.

In returning to this story at this particular time, I’m struck by one aspect. Ebenezer Scrooge is an isolated, socially awkward man living alone in a very large house. Disconnected from family. No friends. No faith community. He exists apart with his loneliness and pain, in denial about both, and lashing out at the world. While he doesn’t pick up a gun, he does harm others on a daily basis.

In learning about shooter Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy, it appears that they lived similarly isolated lives. By all available evidence, Adam was a deeply disturbed individual and needed more help than he received. Nancy Lanza was trying her best to raise him on her own. But, for quite some time leading up to the horrific tragedy on Friday, it was just the two of them in a big house out in the woods. Family? Broken, disconnected. Friends? No real ones have surfaced. Faith community? None identified. Other support communities? None identified.

Ebenezer Scrooge’s life changes when someone intervenes in it. In his case, it is his dead partner, Jacob Marley, who procures one last chance for Ebenezer to avoid a terrible afterlife.

Amid all of the heated debate about our gun control regulations in America and the head bobbing about how little we understand (and do for) people with mental illnesses, I hope we embrace a more fundamental point: We need to take better care of each other.

We need to look around, beyond our daily lives and our circles of family and friends.

We need to notice those who are isolated, existing apart from any clear community.

We need to reach out to them, make ourselves available, and reconnect them if we can.

In Ebenezer’s case, he gains redemption and everyone around him – family, employees, strangers – benefits from the changes in him. In the case of Adam and Nancy Lanza, it might have saved over two dozen lives.

Let us not leave the work of the living to the dead.

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Mark TwainI have a particular fondness for Mark Twain, whom I’ve read a fair amount of and yet nowhere near enough. Both Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn were childhood favorites of mine that I’ve revisited since. I’ve enjoyed a host of his  stories and essays over the years. I’ve seen theatrical productions of his work.

But it’s more than that. Because I like his letters and various random quotes from his speeches and other bits and pieces just as much as the novels and stories that made him one of the undisputed American masters. It’s his humor. It’s his irreverence. It’s the house he built in Hartford that I’ve visited several times. It’s that untamed mop of hair and the bushy moustache. It’s his audacious life, which brings tragedy into the mix. I even have a sweatshirt with a Twain quote on it and I don’t typically wear anything with slogans or quotes or text of any kind on it. (With the exception of Red Sox stuff.)

So, in celebration of Mark Twain’s birthday, here is some Twain wisdom worth embracing.

Nine Tips for Living an Extraordinary Life:

1. Approve of yourself.
“A man cannot be comfortable without his own approval.”

2. Your limitations may just be in your mind.
“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

3. Lighten up and have some fun.
“Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.”

4. Let go of anger.
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

5. Release yourself from entitlement.
“Don’t go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

6. If you’re taking a different path, prepare for reactions.
“A person with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.”

7. Keep your focus steadily on what you want.
“Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.”

8. Don’t focus so much on making yourself feel good.
“The best way to cheer yourself up is to try to cheer somebody else up.”

9. Do what you want to do.
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”

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